“I guess the impact sought was one of transcendence.” That’s the response of theater designer-director Eugene Williams when asked about the concept behind his latest production.
The show, company song, based on four plays and 22 poems by Dennis Scott, opened Friday at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts School of Drama. It closes its two-weekend run on Sunday.
Williams’ “I guess” is appropriate. The source of artistic creativity is the subconscious, and no one knows exactly what is going on in its depths.
Fortunately, Williams’ intention is achieved: the production is transcendent in that it powerfully lifts the viewer’s imagination from present-day Jamaica to another time and another place. Not that we’re taken back to the “good old days”. Sadly, as the darker parts of the production suggest, there has never been such an era in Jamaica as a whole.
Thus, in Scott’s popular poem uncle timewhich is dramatized in the production, the weather is portrayed as “cruel” and “black as pain”; “‘one when’ I am to touch you weep.” And one of the plays from which excerpts are taken, Echo in the Goode, is partly set in the time of slavery and shows enslaved Africans in a slave ship bound for Jamaica, and later at auction.
The parts of the pieces chosen — Annabel Campbell’s crime, Dog and The Passionate Cabbage are the other three – are all tragic. The first concerns a woman who murders two people, her son and his wife; Dog concerns abused “victims” in society; and in Cabbagethe main male character is both henpecked and cuckolded.
Excerpts from plays are melodramatic, but although many poems also deal with pain and suffering – for example, Epitaphabout the hanging of a slave, with its first line being, “They hung him one mild morning” — they are generally subtle. And some speak of love and compassion.
They are also, on the whole, difficult. That’s why it was helpful for Williams to direct the room and design the set. The central backdrop image is an image of Scott’s face superimposed on large pieces of broken glass, with a bird flying above his head. The walls around the stage are also broken.
Here is Williams’ rationale for the design:
“The set is meant to represent the fact that what is presented to you are excerpts from the plays, and they are woven in a sophisticated and almost surreal way with the poems.
“And the focal point is the artist (Scott) and his literary and theatrical legacy, pervasive with his overriding symbolic motif of creative imagination. I guess the impact sought was one of transcendence. Taking flight like a volley of birds.”
With most of the actors playing their characters and getting into their shoes, so to speak, the acting is at least good. Some of them are excellent. Clear, expressive speech helps build character, and it’s the best I’ve heard from a drama school production in decades.
Williams explains, “I was very lucky to have a talented and technically proficient group of students in grades two through four. They loved what they were doing and trusted my craziness as I continued to create (cut and add) material throughout the process. [it] as for getting them to speak the language clearly and intelligently, it took painstaking and concentrated work on a few of them. I’m very proud of their development.”
Their love is communicated to the audience and we appreciate what we see on stage because of their love. We reward them with applause and laughter as well as groans of sympathy. Paradoxically, one of the characters is able to obtain both laughter and sympathy — the Betrayed Man (Alvin Wilson) in The Passionate Cabbage.
Other actors who deserve praise are Jasmine Collins, for her role as the fickle Angela in Annabel Campbell, his wife in Cabbage, and its powerful dramatization of guard ring; Jordann Waugh, for his restrained and smoldering characterization of Annabel Campbell; Sajay Deacon as her son/husband John; Jesse McClure as Stone in An echo in the bone and his interpretation, with others, of the poems uncle time and Letter to my son; and Abijah Warren as Mom in Dog. Other audiences might see other actors in these roles as there is double casting.
John DaCosta’s sensitive lighting and Marlon Simms’ stylistic, energetic choreography enhanced the show’s visual appeal. A longtime costume designer for School of Drama productions, Stacy-Ann Banton has created interesting colorful and drab clothing.
The production is staged at the school’s Dennis Scott Studio Theater and, in its director’s notes, Williams reminds the current generation of viewers that Scott, who died in 1991, was a former principal of the School of Drama. He adds that Scott was “a mentor to many of us who worked with him as a student and teacher. His particular vision of Caribbean theater and pedagogy is a legacy that continues to influence our own work as as teachers and directors.
“I particularly wanted to introduce students to his legacy and celebrate with the theater audience a collage of known and perhaps unknown plays and poetry that they might find inspiring and refreshing on stage.”
In the end, Williams emailed me after the show. He wanted the public to have “an entertaining evening”. Admittedly, on the second night of production, when I saw him, he was successful.